Review

by Theron Martin,

Magic User's Club!

DVD - OVA and TV Series

Synopsis:
Magic User's Club! DVD

OVA: A year ago, a cylindrical alien spaceship which came to be known as the Bell came to Earth. Mankind's weaponry was ineffective against it, but despite sending a message that claimed its intent was to conquer the Earth, it never actually did anything except observe unless provoked. The one thing that is able to affect it and its probes is true magic, as the denizens of Kitanohashi High's Magic User's Club eventually discover. Despite general beliefs to the contrary, they actually practice real magic, and club president Takeo is determined to find a way to use it to deal with the potential threat the Bell poses (when he's not being distracted by lurid daydreams about the girls around him, that is). One of the greatest helps and hindrances to that plan is second-year member Sae, whose clumsiness and lack of confidence in both herself and her magic belies an incredibly strong innate ability.

TV Series: Set a few weeks after the events of the OVA series, a clean-up effort of sorts from the Bell's departure has all sorts of unexpected consequences, not the least of which is the appearance of a strange, androgynous boy who seems to have great magical power and deep insight into the members of the Magic-User's Club. He is ever a lingering presence as the members deal with ordinary troubles, including mishaps in magical training, family issues, romance, and the terror of a Manga Club president who knows Takeo all-too-well from childhood. However, he won't remain in the background forever.

Review:

Though it has both light novel and manga adaptations, Magic User's Club! started out in 1996 as a six episode anime-original OVA series. (Some sources out on the Web claim that the OVA is an adaptation of the franchise's shojo manga version, but comments by the director in a behind-the-scenes segment contradict that.) That proved popular enough to garner a 13 episode TV series follow-up in 1999. The OVA series in particular was a staple of the convention viewing room scene in the States in the late '90s, and both versions got both DVD and separate subbed and dubbed VHS releases in the early 2000s. However, both series went out of print for more than a decade before Nozomi Entertainment picked them up in late 2015, and now they are being simultaneously rereleased on DVD. This review covers both releases.

Looked at from a 2016 perspective, the appeal of these series beyond nostalgia may be limited. The visual aesthetics and rougher animation style, which were fairly common in the '90s, do not hold up well against even middle-of-the-road fare from recent years, and the TV series' use of early CG animation is quite crude by comparison. Numerous gimmicks and tropes that the series depend on may have been fresh (or at least fresher) in the late '90s but have been done to death – and done much better – since then. The series even gets well-outclassed on the comedy front by innumerable releases since then, though even at the time that they were made they were not on a level with earlier comedy classics like Urusei Yatsura and Ranma ½. So what can the series offer current anime fans?

For one, they are rare examples of anime series where teenage boys use magic just as much as girls do, and on equal terms. In fact, I am hard-pressed to come up with another series where boys not only ride brooms on their own power but also do so even more proficiently than the girls do. (In fairness, though, the male club members are both older and more experienced than the female club members.) Both series also get a lot of mileage out of exploiting magical mishaps, such as one TV episode where an experiment with teleportation goes awry, resulting in the club members finding themselves accidentally magically connecting doorways when doing normal activities, such as opening the refrigerator to find a link to another club member's bathroom.

Also, while the series are ostensibly comedies, they actually depend just as much on romantic character interactions as they do magic use for their entertainment value. Sae and Takeo both love each other but are unaware that the other feels the same and are reluctant to confess because she fears being a bother and he fears being seen as abusing his position as her senpai. Third-year boy Ayanojyo also has an unrequited love for Takeo (he spends much of both series hitting on Takeo at every opportunity, much to Takeo's discomfort), while Sae's fellow second-year Nanaka has an unrequited thing for Ayanojyo. And first-year member Akane? She has a steady string of unrelated-to-the-club boyfriends whom she flitters between. As the TV series shows, most members also have issues with at least one family member. The franchise never delves too deeply into any of this – in fact, that some of these interactions (especially Akane with her mother) aren't explored more is one of the franchise's biggest shortcomings – but all of the character dynamics do keep the series humming.

Plot-wise, both series have a thin core story padded out by a lot of foolishness. In the OVAs it's all about how the agents of the Bell seem intensely curious about the magic which can affect them, whether it's performed innocently or not. Without a real enemy left for the club to oppose, the TV series focuses more on developing the day-to-day activities of characters and the complications that they get into. Magical boy Jurika remains only an occasional background presence until late in the series, when his interactions with Sae in particular come to predominate. The TV series also generally takes itself a little more seriously, and it increasingly shades more towards drama as it progresses, to the point that minor attempts at comedy in the late episodes of the TV series feel out of place. The TV series also involves one other significant character who never appears in the OVAs: Micky (possibly actually supposed to be Miki), the person whom Sae is always writing to. Micky's actual identity is never explained until late in the series, and that her role in the series' backstory is never mentioned before then seems rather odd. The TV series also drops all reference to Sae's stuffed bear Jeff-kun and her past encounter with a mysterious sorcerer of the same name, except for one of the series' final scenes.

The look of the two series is virtually identical, though, which is to be expected given that they have the same principal production staff. Character designs, whether for main or supporting cast, are the series' greatest visual strength, although the animation effort isn't shabby, either. (Despite some shortcuts being taken, movements are usually smooth and on-model.) They mostly fit archetypes that either were standard at the time or would later become standard: the short-haired tomboy (Nanaka), the flighty pretty girl/model (Akane), the gay pretty boy (Ayanojyo), and the nerdy guy (Takeo). Sae is a little more of an interesting case, as she represents the pre-moe clumsy girl visual archetype. (Looking at her and then looking at clumsy moe girls from more recent series makes me realize how radically this particular character type has been redefined over the last two decades.) Their distinctive unifying trait is, oddly enough, an unusually heavy emphasis on thick eyelashes. While the series is peppered with ecchi content (especially in scenes where Takeo lets his imagination run wild), it is pretty mild stuff by current standards and far less lurid-feeling than more recent fan service-heavy fare.

The music doesn't impress much, either. The musical score is sparsely-used (especially in the OVAs), with a tendency toward orchestration in more dramatic scenes and simpler instrumentation when used at all in lighter moments. An insert song used at one point in the TV series comes off as bland, although none of the openers or closers (one pair each for the OVAs and the TV series) are particularly memorable, either; the only one which sticks out even a little is the languid, melodic “Mata Ashita,” which closes out most of the OVA episodes.

The English dub, courtesy of NYAV post, isn't incompetent but it definitely isn't one of the smoother ones from the turn-of-the-century era. Kevin T. Collins (Griffith in Berserk) is probably the best fit, and gives the best performance, as Ayanojyo, but contrarily, Misty Daniels as Sae (her only anime role) and Jamie McGonnigal as Takeo (Omi in Knight Hunters) both regularly seem to be straining for timing, which results in them frequently stretching out their lines in awkward-sounding fashion. Subtitles do not, however, have any major discrepancies with the English script, although the English script does use “comic books” in lieu of “manga.” Just another sign of the changing times!

Nozomi Entertainment's releases of the titles under their Bayview Entertainment label are the first releases for this franchise to offer the Japanese language tracks in stereo. The OVAs are split between two disks and include a karaoke clip, clean opener and closer, promo videos, and a six minute long “behind the scenes” video, which amusingly points out that director/creator Junichi Sato may have been the physical model for Takeo. (And it's not hard to buy that after seeing him at work.) The TV series comes on three disks with clean opener and closer and a “short film” which is an extended live-action remake of the bizarre student-made film that Nanaka gets dragged into starring in during the Cultural Festival episodes. All of the disks on both series also have Easter Eggs: if you continue to play the disk beyond the translated credits at the end of the last episode then you will be treated to a blooper reel for the episodes on that disk, which cannot be accessed otherwise. All content except the menu screens is in original 4:3 aspect ratio, and explanatory on-screen notes on obscure Japanese traditions pop up in a couple of places.

Overall, Magic User's Club! is a mildly entertaining franchise which won't strain the brain much but never really sags, either. It's not hard to see why it was popular during the time in which it was made, but its time has definitely passed.

Grade:
Production Info:
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : B-
Animation : B
Art : C+
Music : C+

+ Character designs and interactions, Easter Eggs on the DVD releases.
English dub performances are hit-or-miss, nasty use of CG, character development needs more fleshing out.

Director: Junichi Sato
Script:
Akinori Endo
Junichi Sato
Storyboard: Junichi Sato
Episode Director:
Mitsuko Kase
Junichi Sato
Kazuhisa Takenouchi
Yoshihiro Ueda
Music: Michiru Oshima
Character Design: Ikuko Ito
Animation Director:
Ichiro Itano
Ikuko Ito
Fumio Matsumoto
Tatsuya Oka
Shigeyuki Suga
Hideki Takahashi
Mechanical design: Mahiro Maeda
Sound Director: Kazuhiro Wakabayashi
Director of Photography: Seiichi Morishita
Executive producer:
Yoshimi Asari
Shigeru Watanabe
Producer:
Masajiro Abe
Kazuhiko Ikeguchi
Hiroaki Inoue
Masato Terada

Full encyclopedia details about
Magic User's Club (OAV)

Release information about
Magic User's Club! - OVA Series (DVD)

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